The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) will spend a "significant" amount of its funding on the prime minister's vision for the country, after a government "clarification" of the Haldane principle – a convention that for 90 years has protected the right of academics to decide where research funds should be spent.
Under the revised principle, research bodies must work to the government's national objectives, although the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said that ministers will not meddle in individual projects.
It is claimed the AHRC was told that research into the "big society" was non-negotiable if it wished to maintain its funding at £100m a year.
The director of research at Cambridge University's history faculty, Professor Peter Mandler, told the Observer that the AHRC was forced to accept the change by officials working for the minister for higher education, David Willetts, regarded as one of the intellectual driving forces behind the "big society".
Mandler added: "The government says they have rewritten the Haldane principle but they have junked it, basically. They say it is now their right to set the priorities for how this funding [is] distributed. They have got the AHRC over a barrel and basically told these guys that they cannot have their money unless they incorporate [these] research priorities.
"Willetts was negotiating nominally, but the word is that it has come down from the secretary of state for business, innovation and skills, Vince Cable. Almost everyone who hears the story is upset about it. What about curiosity research, blue sky thinking? What is worrying is what won't be researched because of this."
There is growing anger at what the Royal Historical Society (RHS) described as a "gross and ignoble" move to assert government control over research in favour of what one academic labelled a party political slogan.
Professor Colin Jones, president of the RHS, said the move was potentially dangerous for the future of academic study in the country. "It seems to me to be absolutely gross," said Jones.
"In a way, the AHRC should be congratulated for securing a good settlement in a difficult spending round, but there is something slightly ignoble about making the 'big society' a research priority."
He added: "It is government money. They have the right to spend it on what they want, but there is a degree of anxiety about the strings being put on. They are being strengthened, which could be dangerous for independent research."
A principal at an Oxford college, who did not want to be named, said: "With breathtaking speed, a slogan for one political party has become translated into a central intellectual agenda for the academy."
Labour MP and historian Tristram Hunt said he intended to raise the issue in parliament, describing the research priorities as "grotesque". He added: "It is disgraceful that taxpayers' money is being spent on this bogus idea."
It is understood that Oxford University intends to discuss the imposition of "big society" research at the next meeting of its sovereign body, the Oxford congregation, in May.
Gareth Thomas, the shadow minister for higher education, condemned the development and called for transparency from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
He said: "Vince Cable and David Willetts need to explain why he has allowed an ill-thought-out, half-formed Tory election idea to divert precious funding away from genuine research.
"When the government is axing virtually all the funding for the teaching of humanities, social sciences and the arts, wasting critical research monies on the 'big society' is simply unacceptable."
Last month, the prime minister rejected criticisms of the "big society" and said the idea was his driving force. He said: "We do need a social recovery to mend the broken society and to me, that's what the big society is all about."
One of the tasks of research, according to the AHRC's delivery plan, will be to define "difficult to pin down" values in "recent speeches on the big society", such as "fairness, engagement, responsibility, mutuality, individualism [and] selfishness".
A Department for Business, Innovation and Skills spoksman insisted that the AHRC itself had proposed the "big society" as a strategic priority.
"Prioritisation of an individual research council's spending within its allocation is not a decision for ministers," she added.
"The government supports [the Haldane] principle as vital for the protection of academic indpendence and excellence."